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Doctors’ orders: Understanding Utah’s opioid crisis

January 27, 2019

There is no escaping the love-hate relationship between opium and the long list of opiates that are derived from it.

While there are few, if any, drugs better at treating pain, stopping diarrhea and the cessation of coughing, there are few drugs that enslave us as quickly, both physically and mentally.

A recent statistic should remind us of just how deadly these drugs can be. More Americans are dying from opioid overdoses than car crashes. According to the National Safety Council, the chances from dying from a car accident is 1 in 103, while the odds of dying from an opioid overdose is 1 in 96. We must also remember that millions of those who are addicted do not die or find themselves in emergency rooms and therefore are not counted.

For Utahns, this should be especially significant because as noted in a previous column, we are among the most dangerous drivers in the nation. For many, the opioid epidemic seems far away. We can’t imagine this is a problem affecting our good families of Utah. Hence, it sneaks up on us, seemingly without any warning.

The truth, however, is contained in another recent headline in The Guardian, which reads “Beyond Pain: how Mormons are left vulnerable in Utah’s opiate crisis.” While as a faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shuns alcohol, this is not necessarily the case with pills, especially when they are prescribed by one form of authority such as a physician. According to The Guardian, in 2014 more than one-third of Utah adults had a prescription for opioid painkillers. The Utah Department of Health reports that this is an increase of more than 400 percent since 2000. For many, addiction starts with a medical condition or a sports injury. While skiing, you take an awkward turn and fall. You injure your hip. You limp around for a few days before seeking medical treatment. Once at your physician it is noted that you are in considerable pain. You are prescribed one of the best pain killers on the planet, an opioid.

With the first pill, you feel the endorphins being squeezed from the brain. You feel a rush of the most powerful feel-good chemicals that exist. Before long, your pain and your brain are addicted. This addiction can occur in as soon as just a few days. Thankfully, your hip soon heals.

Now, however, you find that not only is your pain gone, but your prescription as well. You are able to convince your physician to give you another prescription, but that is all. Once this gets close to gone, you begin to have crazy thoughts centered on getting more of the drug.

You begin to think about things that are so far out of your normal mindset that even you are scared. You remind yourself, however, that you are not an addict. After all, you are different. You have a fine home, job, even kids. You could quit if you wanted, but these pills make you feel so good.

You find another physician who gives you another prescription, but soon, all resources are exhausted. After an unsuccessful try at “doctor shopping,” you are now desperate — the drug owns you. You begin frequenting dark environments in search of anything that can satisfy your craving.

You find the drug on the street. It is called heroin. You, like millions of other addicts, have transitioned to this drug when you cannot obtain your original prescription. Others call you an addict. You call yourself a person in need of relief.

In a significant part of our culture, there is a strong inducement to be perfect — to be the outstanding family on your block. Your drug secret must be kept at all costs. Obtaining treatment regardless of the initial cause of your addiction is out of the question.

Recently however, in a dramatic turn of events, we as a state are confronting our opioid addiction.

In next week’s column, I will focus specifically on what Utah is doing to not only confront this major public health problem, but how we actually may be turning the tide.